Besides being the inspiration behind many of John Constable’s pastoral paintings, this quintessentially English countryside was also once a prosperous trading route between East Anglia and London. Natalie Hoare reports
It’s my first time in this part of the world, yet it all seems strangely familiar. And I think I know why. Standing here at Flatford Mill in Suffolk – the heart of Constable Country – is like stepping back in time. I am stood on the exact spot where John Constable, one of England’s best-loved landscape painters, would have set up his easel to create what was to become one of Britain’s most iconic paintings.
Voted the second greatest painting in Britain following a survey by BBC Radio Four, the Hay Wain, completed in 1821, is one of a series of pastoral scenes that Constable painted of Dedham Vale and the River Stour, the area in which he was born and bred. Now forming part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the scenes he painted eventually came to epitomise life in the English countryside and have enticed visitors from around the world.
‘There’s a real concentration of Constable scenes around here,’ explains Martin Atkinson, National Trust property manager at Flatford Mill, gesturing towards the 16th-century thatched mill cottage and the river. ‘This was one of Constable’s father’s mills where he spent a lot of time sketching and painting. Almost everywhere you go, you walk past a scene Constable painted. People often walk past without realising.’
The Hay Wain depicts a horse-drawn wain (cart), in the shallows of the river near Flatford, with a dog looking on, a timber-framed red-roofed farmhouse on the left, and a gap in the trees through which fields and hedgerows extend off into the horizon towards the village of Dedham where, as a young boy, Constable went to school.
Two hundred years later, the scene before remains virtually unchanged. But this is no coincidence. As a popular honey-pot site for the area’s tourists (Dedham and Flatford attract around 220,000 visitors a year), it’s in the National Trust’s interests to maintain the scenes as they appear in the Constable paintings, at least to a degree.
‘What we don’t do is try to fossilise the landscape,’ says Atkinson. ‘What we try to do is keep an impression of the paintings. So with regards to the Hay Wain, we obviously try and make sure that it’s looking similar so you can see an impression of what it was like when Constable painted it.’
THE WORKING RIVER VALLEY
The gently undulating slopes that descend down to meet the gently flowing River Stour with its hedged water meadows, copses and distinctive pollarded cricket-bat willows were a source of great inspiration not just to Constable, but also to Alfred Munnings and Thomas Gainsborough both of whom are ‘local lads’ who depicted the region in some of their work.
‘All of these painters tried to capture country life – they really bring East Anglian life alive,’ explains Neil Catchpole, the AONB’s biodiversity and landscape officer, who was brought up in the Vale. ‘But a lot of the inspiration was from the river itself and the trade on the river.’
The border between the counties of Suffolk and Essex, the River Stour (pronounced ‘stoor’) was once a vital lifeline for the people of Dedham Vale, powering to a series of mills and providing a trading route upon which to transport locally produced goods to London. Designated in 1970, the Dedham Vale AONB encompasses 90 square kilometres from the outskirts of the village of Bures in Suffolk downstream to Manningtree in Essex.
‘One of the overriding things that you have to think of when you’re talking about this AONB is the fact that it is a river valley and was once a working river valley,’ says Catchpole. ‘There was an act of parliament in 1705 to create navigation on the River Stour for the purposes of trade,’ he says in his soft East Anglian accent. ‘And to this day anybody has the right to navigate that river from Sudbury right through to the sea.’
At its height during the mid-19th century, the river would have looked very different to today with dozens of Stour lighters gliding up- and downstream throughout the day. A type of shallow-hulled open wooden barge, lighters were often lashed together in pairs and towed by a single horse, which was trained to leap on and off the foredeck as the towpath changed sides – a local phenomenon captured by Constable in The White Horse (1819).
The wares onboard comprised of bricks for construction, malt for the brewing trade and grain to fuel the city’s main mode of transport, horses. Returning lighters heading upstream would have carried goods such as coal to fuel the brick kilns into the region.
As with most inland waterways, the advent of the steam engine marked the beginning of the end for the River Stour’s fleet of lighters and the last barge came up the river to Dedham in 1930, but there are still signs of the old wharfs and locks, many of which have been painstakingly restored or maintained by the River Stour Trust (RST).
Today, the river is used just for pleasure. ‘The beauty of it is that if you get on the river, you can see the valley from a different perspective completely. There are fallen trees, and lots of secret places – it’s all a bit Swallows and Amazons.’
The meanders, islets, inlets and banks of the Stour provide ideal cover for a range of interesting but elusive animals, including water voles and otters. Thanks to the work of the AONB team and the local Wildlife Trusts – creating artificial holts for and improving their ideal habitat, otters have made a comeback along the river following severe decline in the 1960s.
A related project is being conducted by the Environment Agency as part of a Europe-wide initiative to investigate the decline of Europe’s eel populations.
‘It’s an EU requirement [to monitor eel numbers] because basically, it is thought that the eel has declined somewhere in the region of 95 per cent since the early to mid 1980s,’ says Adam Piper, an ecologist from the Environment Agency.
In the past every river in the country would have enjoyed healthy eel populations – smoked or jellied eels were once popular across Britain – so to find out what’s happening, Piper and his colleagues regularly trap, count and releasing eels and elvers (juvenile eels) to give a snapshot of eel populations in the River Stour.
‘[The decline] may be due to something happening out at sea and that is something that’s being looked at as well but in the meantime, it’s important to have an idea of what’s in the rivers anyway because of the food chain,’ says Piper.
AWAY FROM THE RIVER
While the River Stour undoubtedly exerts a great influence over the character of the AONB, once you turn your back on it on and climb the gentle valley sides, the winding single-track lanes carry you through an ever-changing scene. Cultivated farmland overlooked by quaint timber-framed farmhouses, some with thatched roofs, some with elaborate pargeting (decorative plaster) or flint-worked facades, are divided by ancient hedgerows, patches of ancient woodland and one of the last bastions of ancient grassland in Suffolk.
‘Suffolk has a reputation for being flat,’ says Catchpole. ‘But it isn’t – it’s a gently rolling landscape and we’ve a surprising range of habitat types here.’
At evocatively named Arger Fen and Spouses Vale, two ancient woodland nature reserves, Dr Simone Bullion of the Suffolk Wildlife Trust (SWT) explains how dedicated dormouse conservation can benefit a whole ecosystem.
‘Dormice are the panda of British wildlife: if you get it right for them, you’ll get it right for an awful lot of other things as well,’ she says. ‘If you’re creating the conditions that dormice need – wonderful diversity in their habitat and a good three-dimensional structure, whether that’s in woodland or hedgerows – then it’s going to be wonderful for invertebrates, birds – everything else. If you’ve got thriving dormice, you’re going to have thriving everything else.’
The SWT is working not only to survey dormice numbers (through the provision of nesting boxes), but also to restore the woodland to its former glory, by removing the non-native conifer trees planted in the 1960s and by linking mosaics of ancient woodland together to boost biodiversity.
‘We’ve acquired a new area [between Arger Fen and Spouses Vale], which was previously arable farmland but which we’ve left to regenerate naturally – it will eventually become woodland. The whole area comes to 48 hectares, so we’ve got a big land holding, which is great because with conservation, bigger is better – and it means we can hopefully create a secure future for things like dormice.’
The SWT is also trying to connect Arger Fen and Spouses Vale to another nearby reserve called Tiger Hill, which encompasses acid grassland. Once common throughout Suffolk, the grassland supports lichen and mosses as well as badgers, dormice, owls, pipistrell and long-eared bats and more. What’s curious about the grassland here is the bobbled, lumpy appearance and feel of it underfoot – it’s like walking on giant bubble wrap.
‘Anthills,’ says Catchpole anticipating my next question. ‘These are the most magnificent anthills you’ll ever see – they’re still inhabited and get bigger every year. As far as we know this area has never been ploughed, it’s only ever been grazed – it’s a bit of old England.’
The AONB team is planning to introduce sheep on the grassland on a semi-permanent basis to stave off the ever-encroaching scrub and give the grassland flower and plant species a chance.
It’s heartening to see that such a culturally, historically and biologically important slice of old England being preserved through these and dozens of other projects like it, which will ensure that Dedham Vale can continue to be a source of great inspiration as it was for the area’s most famous resident.
‘The sound of water escaping from mill-dams, [the] willows, old rotten planks, slimy posts and brickwork, I love such things…’ wrote Constable in a letter to a friend. ‘Those scenes made me a painter and I am grateful.’
BEST BITS OF DEDHAM VALE
To take tea after a walk
‘Dedham has a real community feel to it and lots of connections to Constable – one of his paintings is hung inside the church, you can see his initials etched on his old school and there’s a top tea shop, which is great after the walk from Flatford or along the river – it’s a really lovely place to be.’
Cathy Smith, Dedham Vale AONB
To see lesser known Constable paintings
‘Although Constable was renowned for his landscape paintings, an exhibition of his portraits is running at the National Portrait Gallery in London until 14 June 2009, which is well worth a visit.’
Janice Kent, East of England Tourism
To enjoy a great view
‘My favourite place in the whole valley is the view from the old black barn just below the church in Wormingford. It opens up one of the best views across the valley – you can see all the different habitats laid out below you. It also looks over the house that I have lived in for 25 years where I brought up my family in the valley that I love.’
Neil Catchpole, landscape and biodiversity officer, Dedham Vale AONB
To see the wild woods
The best place to see Ancient woodland in the AONB in my opinion is Arger Fen, which connects to Spouses Vale. It’s a large area and you can walk through it for quite a distance experiencing a taste of what it might have been like in the wild woods. It’s a fantastic spot for bluebells in the springtime, too.’
Simone Bullion, senior conservation officer, Suffolk Wildlife Trust
To enjoy local fayre
‘The Crown Inn in Stoke by Nayland has a fine reputation for great local food and an impressive wine list. They’ve also recently developed 11 superb guest bedrooms so it’s like a countryside boutique hotel in the heart of Constable Country.’
Jim Brown, Choose Suffolk Tourism